* Second of a Six Part Series: Tolerance and Intolerance in the Islamic World, held at the Palais des Nations during the Durban Review Conference. All members of the Panel are Practicing Muslims.
Thank you very much and good afternoon.
Today I would like to focus more on current political affairs, rather than on the threats of radical Islam. I will talk specifically about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the status of Israel's Arab citizens.
Before that I would like to tell you a bit about my background. I have been working as a journalist for the past 27 years in the Palestinian areas. My career as a journalist started by working for a PLO newspaper in Jerusalem. For the past 20 years or so I have been serving as a consultant, advisor and facilitator for most of the foreign journalists who come over there and want to go to Ramallah and Gaza and talk to Fatah and Hamas. And for the past eight years I have been also writing for the Israeli media and specifically The Jerusalem Post, reporting on Palestinian issues.
I am an Arab Muslim living in Jerusalem. I am also an Israeli citizen, not because I am a collaborator with Israel, but because my father belongs to the Israeli-Arab community inside Israel. We are talking about nearly 1.4 million people living inside Israel. And I also happen to be a Palestinian because my mother is a Palestinian from the West Bank. So if you're confused you can call me an Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian. We have a crisis of identity over there.
Now as I said, for the past eight years I have been working for The Jerusalem Post and one of the questions that people often ask me is, “why are you working for a Jewish paper? Aren't you seen as a traitor because you work for a Jewish paper?” I tell people “absolutely not.”
There has never been a decision by the Palestinians to boycott the Israeli media. The only talk about boycott comes from American and British university campuses.
For a period of 15 years I was also writing for a Hebrew paper and among the people that I used to interview were most of the Hamas and Fatah leaders, including Yasser Arafat and Ahmed Yassin. Even most of the wanted Palestinian gunmen who were on Israel's list gave interviews to the Israeli media.
The Arabs living over there are not stupid. Although they have lived under occupation and despite the tensions, they have also learned some good things from Israel.
We Arabs have been exposed to many good things inside Israel. I'm not ashamed to say that we learned from Israel. We learned about democracy. We learned about the freedom of debate. We learned about the freedom of the media.
That is why the Arabs had high hopes on the eve of the Oslo Accords. They were hoping that when they finally have their own Arab government over there, it would be a democracy like the one in Israel; that we would have our own Knesset where someone can criticize the Prime Minister and government. And we would have a free media where someone could write about corruption.
When I used to work in the PLO newspaper, we used to say that we hope one day we will have a free media like the one these Jews have, where a writer can bring down a minister through an investigative report.
But things have been going in the wrong direction ever since the peace process began. Why? Not because of the peace process itself or the principles of the Oslo Accord. The concept of the Oslo Accord and the two-state solution is wonderful, although it is not practical and will never work. The idea of Oslo is good, but the way it was implemented brought disaster to both Jews and Arabs. And the way Oslo was implemented is responsible for the fact that Hamas is now in power.
Why? Because the assumption back then in Israel, in America and in Europe was that if we bring Yasser Arafat into the West Bank and Gaza, give him billions of dollars and guns, he will do the job for us and there would be nothing to worry about. Arafat will even fight Hamas, prevent terrorism and foil suicide bombings.
So they brought Yasser Arafat over there. He established this thing called the Palestinian National Authority and the show began. It was actually a one-man show run by Arafat and his corrupt cronies. The international community poured $6.5 billion on this Palestinian Authority between 1993 and 2001. Most of this money literally went down the drain or to support the shopping sprees of a lady who was sitting in Paris.
Instead of building a hospital, Arafat built a casino, as if the Palestinian revolution has been aspiring for 40 years to build a casino.
Now by depriving his people of the international aid, Arafat drove many Palestinians into the open arms of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The people lost faith in him and the peace process. By establishing a corrupt regime, by cracking down on human rights activists, newspaper editors and political opponents, Arafat actually boosted Hamas's popularity among the Palestinians.
Palestinian academics who signed a petition calling for an end to financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority in 1997 were targeted and silenced by Arafat. Some were shot, beaten and arrested. Others had to flee the country. They were targeted by the same Palestinian security forces that were being trained and financed by the United States of America and Europe.
So all these things boosted Hamas's popularity to the point where when Hamas finally challenged Arafat's Fatah Party in a free democratic election in January 2006, Hamas won. Why? Hamas was very clever—it ran under the banner of Change and Reform. Hamas came to the Palestinians with a message that said, "Listen folks, the PLO and Arafat have stolen your money, why don’t you try us now?"
I know Christians who voted for Hamas in the January 2006 elections. I know secular Palestinians who voted for Hamas. I even know PLO people who voted for Hamas because the name of the game was, "Let's punish the corrupt PLO guys."
One of the reasons why Hamas became so popular was the incitement. The international community gave Yasser Arafat money to open a TV and radio station and in this media Arafat said jihad, jihad, jihad. Arafat used the media to tell his people how bad and evil the Jews are. So the Palestinians said to themselves, "Well, that means Hamas is right about the Jews. If these Jews are so evil and so bad, why are we making peace with them?” So that's one of the reasons why the Oslo process brought Hamas to power.
Hamas owes its victory to the corruption of Fatah. Now the mistake that the international community made was that they poured money on Fatah unconditionally, without holding them accountable. Fatah was squandering the money while Hamas was building schools and hospitals. One of the reasons why Hamas won the hearts and minds of the Palestinians was that ever since the movement was established, it managed to establish a vast network of social, economic, health and education services. Hamas was establishing orphanages and charities while Arafat was giving his wife $100,000 a month so that she could do her shopping in Paris.
Now if you ask many Palestinians over there, they will tell you “look, the international community corrupted the Palestinians and created this elitist group that actually distanced itself from the Palestinians.” Hamas came into this vacuum that was created. So the international community is responsible for the fact that Hamas eventually came to power.
The international community, sadly, has not learned from its mistakes and is continuing to support the same Fatah guys who lost the election and they are even encouraging them to go and bring down the democratically elected government of Hamas.
And this is playing into Hamas's hands because it is boosting its popularity even more. When a Palestinian sees the U.S. Administration and the Europeans trying to bring down their Hamas government, their sympathies go to the Hamas government.
And on the other hand, when the Palestinians see that Fatah has not drawn the conclusions from its defeat in the January 2006 elections and is continuing to block reforms, the Palestinians do not see any reason why they should support Fatah. I am convinced that if there were a free election tomorrow morning in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas would win. They would win for two reasons. One, the US-led campaign against Hamas has turned the movement into a victim in the eyes of the majority of the Palestinians. Many Palestinians do not hold Hamas responsible for failure because they say, "Oh these poor Hamas people, they won a free election but no one is giving them a chance."
So that is reason number one why most people would vote for Hamas.
Reason number two: Why should any Palestinian vote again for the same Fatah people he/she voted out three years ago if they have not changed? It is the same faces. You go to Ramallah and it is the same “Abus”: Abu Mazen, Abu Ala, etc. It is the same guys who failed their people under Arafat. They are continuing to run the show with the help of the Americans and the Europeans as if nothing happened. So the international community has to wake up and go to these “Abus” in Ramallah and say, "Hamas is in power because of your corruption and incompetence. Why don’t you guys reform yourselves?”
When the United States demanded that the Palestinians go and have a free and democratic election, the Fatah people went to Condoleezza Rice and said, "Listen. We can’t have free and democratic elections in Palestine” and she asked them why. So they said, “Well, we are corrupt, we are thieves, we are thugs, we stole the money. And Hamas is running under the banner of change and reform and it is very risky.” She said “Don’t worry. Go and have a free and democratic election and I assure you that Hamas will not win.” And when they asked her “how do you know?” She said because I just warned the Palestinians if they vote for Hamas, we the United States of America will punish them. That warning on the eve of the election, by the way, was one of the main reasons why Hamas won the election.
The only way to undermine Hamas is by offering the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas and not by giving Fatah guns so that they can bring down Hamas. We tried it and it did not work.
But what has been happening since Hamas came to power is also very interesting. The same international community that pushed the Palestinians to go have a free democratic election, after Hamas came to power, went to the guys who lost the elections, the PLO people, and said, “Folks, Here are guns and here is money. Go bring down this democratically elected government of Hamas."
And Hamas is sitting there saying, "Hey, what do you guys want from us? We were voted in, in a free, democratic election. If you don’t believe us, ask Jimmy Carter. He supervised the election."
Fatah's refusal to accept their defeat and Hamas’ insistence on clinging to power has created a power struggle that has been raging for the past three years and has claimed the lives of over 1,500 Palestinians, some of them killed in the most brutal, ruthless ways. Thousands of people have been injured in the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. Contrary to the U.S. administration and the United Nations, I do not think that this is a power struggle between good guys and bad guys; this is a power struggle between bad guys and bad guys.
I wish they were fighting over reforms and democracy and a better economy. All they are fighting over is money and power.
So this is the situation in the Palestinian areas today. I said before that I support a two-state solution. If you think of it, in the end we did get a two-state solution over there. The Palestinians got two states: one in Gaza and one in the West Bank. And it is not good news, by the way, because it means we do not have a clear address on the Palestinian side today.
The funny part is that the Obama Administration is now putting pressure on Binyamin Netanyahu to accept the two-state solution. Let’s assume that tomorrow morning Binyamin Netanyahu declares that he ls going to give the Palestinians a state. Where are the Palestinians going to set up their state? Fatah cannot go to Gaza and Hamas cannot go to the West Bank. We are talking about two separate entities. So it is a stalemate.
Now with regards to the Israeli-Arabs. On my way to Geneva I read in one of the newspapers that an Arab Knesset member who came here said: "I'm a Palestinian living in Israel and suffering from apartheid and racism."
Now some Israeli-Arab leaders, like this Knesset member, they run in the elections on a platform that promises their constituents equality and better services. They come to us, the Israeli-Arabs and say, "Vote for us. We'll bring you equality. We will make sure that the government starts investing more in the Arab sector.”
As I said, there are very serious problems facing the Arab sector inside Israel. Ehud Olmert, the Former Prime Minister of Israel, recently said that the Israeli-Arabs are suffering from a policy of systematic discrimination, especially when it comes to the allocation of public funds.
But when these Israeli-Arabs Knesset members come to the Knesset, instead of dealing with the real problems of the Israeli-Arab community, what do they do? They go to meet with Hamas and Hizbullah leaders. And they will use any available platform to attack Israel and provoke the Jewish public. Why do they do that?
I think they do it in order to grab headlines in the newspaper. Because if they are dealing with sewage and classrooms and paving roads, no one in Israel is going to write about them. But if an Israeli-Arab Knesset member comes out in favor of suicide bombing, for example, he will get a lot of coverage in the Israeli media. As far as he is concerned, "I don’t care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right."
In the course of doing this, these radical Knesset members are causing the Israeli-Arabs huge damage. These are not the issues that they should be dealing with. We should not be in favor of Hamas or Hezbollah. We want to see these leaders deal with equality inside Israel. I want to see the leaders of the Israeli-Arab community inside Israel fighting for our rights from the Knesset in Jerusalem and not from Damascus or Beirut or Gaza. And why do they forget that when they were elected they made an oath to the State of Israel. And then they come here to tell us that Israel is a state of apartheid?
Excuse me. What kind of hypocrisy is this? What then are you doing in the Knesset? If you are living in an apartheid system, why were you allowed, as an Arab, to run in the election? What are you talking about?
We do have problems as Arabs with the establishment here. But to come and say that Israel is an apartheid state is a big exaggeration. I am not here to defend Israel, but I think that Knesset members like this gentleman are doing huge damage to the cause of Israeli Arabs. I want to see the Knesset member sitting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, and fighting for the rights of Arabs over there.
These Knesset members are responsible for the fact that many Jews today see us the Israeli Arabs as a fifth column, an enemy from within.
I am very worried about the deterioration of relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, more than I'm worried about the deterioration of relations between Jews and Palestinians.
It is easy to solve the problem with the Palestinians because, at the end of the day, there is going to be separation between Jews and Palestinians in one form or another. But what do we do with the 1.4 million Arabs living inside Israel? That is something that we should focus on.
I really believe that we, the Israeli-Arabs, can serve as a bridge between the Jews and our Palestinian brothers. And it is a huge mistake for us to side with one side against the other. We are playing into the hands of those radical Israeli right-wingers who are trying to depict us as a fifth column and a cancer and we are actually giving them the ammunition to attack us.
So we should be very careful about how we present our case as Israeli Arabs.
Our dilemma is that our state, Israel, is at war with our people in the West Bank and Gaza. And by the way, we have no problem being Israeli citizens. I mean many of us are even proud to be Israeli citizens. If you go to Ramallah and Gaza once, and you come back into Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, you will see what I mean. Sometimes I say “thank God we have Israel.”
Israel is a wonderful place to live and we are happy to be there. Israel is a free and open country. If I were given the choice, I would rather live in Israel as a second class citizen than as a first class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman or Ramallah.
Khaled Abu Toameh is an Israeli Arab journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for U.S. News and World Report and the Jerusalem Post, and has been the Palestinian affairs producer for NBC News since 1988.